An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

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9780151005642: An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. Lee's defeat at Gettysburg had dashed the hopes of the Confederate army, and Grant's victory at Vicksburg had cut the South in two. An Honorable Defeat is the story of the four months that saw the surrender of the South and the assassination of Lincoln by Southern partisans. It is also the story of two men, antagonists yet political partners, who struggled during this time to achieve their own differing visions for the South: Jefferson Davis, the autocratic president of the Confederate States, who vowed never to surrender whatever the cost; and the practical and warm General John C. Breckinridge, Secretary of War, who hoped pragmatism would save the shattered remnants of the land he loved so dearly.

Pulitzer Prize nominee William C. Davis traces the astounding flight of these men, and the entire Confederate cabinet, as they flee south from Richmond by train, then by mule, then on foot. Using original research, he narrates, with dramatic style and clear historical accuracy, the futile quarrels of Davis and Breckinridge as they try to evade bands of Northern pursuers and describes their eventual--and separate--captures. The result is a rich canvas of a time of despair and defeat that is exciting and highly readable, a charged tale full of physical adventure and political battle that sweeps from the marble halls of Richmond to a dingy room in a Havana hotel.

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Review:

In the final days of the Civil War, when defeat loomed for the South, Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckenridge warned, "This has been a magnificent epic. In God's name, let it not terminate in a farce." To be sure, there were plenty of farcical moments--even pathetic ones--as the Confederate government breathed its last. President Jefferson Davis fled capture but was ultimately apprehended in disguise; he was wearing his wife's clothing. Union soldiers detected his "distinctly unfeminine cavalry boots and spurs" and arrested him. Then there was "the last official act of the Confederate government itself"--Breckinridge giving a commission in jest to a soldier who had already surrendered because the man wanted to outrank one of his fellows.

William C. Davis is the perfect author for An Honorable Defeat. He is an accomplished Civil War historian and previously has written excellent biographies of Jefferson Davis and John Breckinridge, the two figures who dominate this book. It also serves as a fitting bookend to A Government of Our Own, an earlier volume on the birth of the Confederate government. An Honorable Defeat is an absorbing story of desperation, as President Davis contemplates waging a guerrilla war against the North and continues to believe the South can prevail even when its mighty armies have been reduced to almost nothing. "A narrow divide separates heroic commitment from sheer fanaticism," writes the author, who nevertheless defends Davis against the charge of fanaticism. He shows, for example, that Davis almost certainly was not aware of any plot on the life of Abraham Lincoln--even though one obviously existed and elements of his secret service probably encouraged it. On the whole, the Confederate president comes off as a man ill-suited to the task that confronted him, which, in time, included graceful surrender. Breckinridge, by contrast, emerges as a hero who made decisions in those last hours that saved lives and fostered national reconciliation. This is a fine book on an overlooked episode, and fans of Jay Winik's masterful April 1865 will find that it deepens their understanding of how the Civil War came to a close. --John J. Miller

About the Author:

The author of more than forty books, William C. Davis is Director of Programs at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. He is also chief consultant for the A&E television series Civil War Journal and teaches history at Virginia Tech. He lives in Virginia.

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